They met in Zanzibar, where Shayne was living at the time, working as a photographer, mainly barefoot at the beach shooting surfers, kite surfers and destination weddings of couples coming from all over the world to get married in paradise. Melli came to the island as a traveler taking a break from her corporate job. It’s where they fell in love, a love that has grown ever since. So they like to tell the story of how Melli&Shayne came to life.
In 2013, Shayne bravely decided to leave his tropical island and move to Finland, where Melli was living at the time. A year later they moved to Germany. That’s where they started their wedding photography business 3 years ago, after – “surprise” – friends asked them to shoot their wedding. And that is where the 3 of them reside now. That’s right, they also have the most adorable dog, called Gaia (who was also present during the recording of this interview, trying to get a small piece of the spotlight).
The first time we met Melli&Shayne, was when they were going through a rebranding and website redesign process (you can read more about it here). During our collaboration, we fell in love with their personality, their kind heart, and mesmerizing work. Knowing their story, inspired the idea of this interview. We asked Melli & Shayne to put together a list of things they wish they knew before they started their photography business.
So if you’re only at the beginning of your career – READ THIS. If you know somebody who’s just starting off – SHOW THEM THIS. And if you’re a veteran and superstar of the photography industry, which ones do you identify with? What would you add?
Here we go, 9 things I wish I knew before I started a photography business,
Shayne (S): If we could go back in time and start all over again there would be some things we would do differently today. I don’t want to say catastrophic mistakes, but just things that could have made our lives easier.
Melli (M): Things that cost us a lot of money, or a lot of time, and sometimes both.
S: One of the most cliché things is about equipment. As beginners we thought buying equipment will make us better photographers, while we didn’t even know what side of photography we were going to focus on.
M: These super expensive Profoto lights, which we almost never used, except for a photo booth set up during weddings later on, are a great example.
S: That was the most expensive photo booth setup in the world! We had a massive fashion umbrella… You could probably fit inside it (laughs). When we bought those lights we thought we’d shoot more studio jobs without even trying it before. It was only after trying we found out that we much preferred using ambient light.
I wish someone had reached out to us at a different level and said “seriously, don’t do it! Find out what path you want to go and buy the expensive equipment later on when you really need it. For now, don’t rush.”
M: You can make all those investments once you have a clear idea of what you want to do. Back then though, we didn’t even know we were going to be wedding photographers. We were doing a little bit of everything. So there was no point in rushing and buying equipment. And now we are trying to use as little equipment as possible and our style has become super minimalistic and focusing on completely different aspects than equipment.
S: The next thing we wish we knew before was Networking. When we first started in wedding photography, we had no idea how big it really was. We only saw the tip of the iceberg – the people we’d find on the first page of Google or that were successfully advertising to other photographers on Facebook. We ended up buying a video workshop and that’s how we got into this network of people – that were all more or less in the same shoes as us, building their photography business. It was one of the best things that has happened to us and we are still to date very thankful for it.
For the beginning stages of the business that was invaluable. This is how we had some wedding couples sent our way and managed to book a fair amount of jobs for our first real wedding season. That really gave us a hand, which I think we may not have found so easily in the beginning, while still polishing out our style and portfolio.
M: Although it sounds easy, with networking comes a huge step outside of your comfort zone. I still remember the first time we actually went to one of those gatherings in Munich. Not too big, around 70-80 people, organized by Carmen & Ingo, our mentors at the time. While on social media, we are all by ourselves, there we suddenly had to interact face to face, something we both were super nervous about.
The second time it was much easier, we went there and we knew a couple of people. And then you grow into that rhythm, and embrace those moments when you meet new people, it becomes a routine. And this training didn’t only help with the networking, it also made us more confident and easy going on our weddings, as it basically is the same situation, you meet the people there for the first time.
Nata (Flothemes): This is basically what you get at any event, wedding, birthday, etc.
M: Yeah, you sit at a table with 10 people you haven’t seen before. And naturally, people feel a bit out of place in those kinds of situations. So that was quite a milestone for us to be able to reach out to some friends, shoot each other, meet on a Sunday afternoon or even just ask for advice, be recommended for a wedding – that helped a lot. So don’t wait up, there are so many conferences, meetups, photo walks, wherever you are, pick some you like and get there!
3. Finding Your Style & Voice
S: This is one is so important and difficult at the same time. Finding a style and voice takes time. Everyone preaches about finding your style, finding your vision, finding this, finding that. I think no one is being completely honest that this is actually a process and very likely not a destination. It’s always evolving & growing.
Your style as a photographer, as a creative is directly influenced by what you are consuming. It does change over time, the more you see and explore things. We stressed so much about this in the beginning, thinking that it was something we had to do overnight, or within a week.
When we realized that finding your style takes time, it was really freeing. It allowed us to be less harsh on ourselves and gave us that motivation to go and create, try new things and not compare ourselves so much to other people.
M: When we started with wedding photography, we consumed anything and everything coming from our mentors Carmen & Ingo, who happened to shoot bright and airy. Naturally, this to us was the only right way to photograph weddings, even though our work before that time was not like this at all.
We suddenly found ourselves in this little fishbowl, which we thought was the only way a wedding photographer had to work. We simply didn’t know differently. So looking back, an advice or a recommendation would be to look at all the possibilities that are out there, not just the first photographer you find & like.
S: Also try different things. One thing we actually got right was we did force ourselves to shoot bright and airy. We did go and learn how to do it, we did shoot people with bright skin and not worry about details in the sky. We did that, and we realized through doing this that we don’t like it. Otherwise, our decision to do something else may not have been as justified and confident. We also tried flash photography, but that will never be seen (laughs).
M: However be aware that by trying also comes the problem that once you start shooting a certain style you attract clients that want exactly that. So what slowed us down in our process was the fact that we had to do this transition, to get back to our own understanding of aesthetics and beauty, after we had shot a a whole wedding season like that. Sure, it’s not a long period, but you get recommended, the word spreads, and you end up having to send away clients that you’ve worked so hard to get in the first place. Because you don’t want what they want anymore.
How was that transition, since you had a whole portfolio of bright and airy?
S: We did it slowly. We accepted the fact that we’re still going to attract people that will not end up in our portfolio. Even if their wedding was beautiful on a different standard, we had to accept that we needed to curate our work.
M: We were also testing. The first wedding we edited a bit differently and the clients were ok with it, as they don’t see the photographs as detailed as we do. And with the next weddings, we kept pushing a little bit further until we were at a point where we were actually happy with the editing and shooting style . And we were probably a bit lucky, since our clients were all happy with what they received.
Now, if we have brides and grooms that ask us for bright and airy photos, we can confidently send them to colleagues who shoot like this. But nowadays it is very rare that people who are looking for a bright and airy style photography contact us.
S: And fortunately a lot of the couples that have booked us now, like our current style even though they booked us a year back.
4. You cannot fail!
S: The next one is probably my all-time favorite, because I’m mister Optimistic (laughs) – YOU CANNOT FAIL! You can only succeed or learn. And this has helped us through some many tough times. With every business, every relationship, anything, you’re going to have ups and downs. And sure, the downs can be really hard at times, and the least you can do for yourself is try and see it in a different or somewhat positive way. This helps you deal with it better.
I don’t know if people are like me, but I really can’t figure out things if I’m depressed and sad. So that saying holds a lot of truth to me. You learn a lot from your mistakes. You grow very fast because of your mistakes. I mean think of Edison, he said he didn’t fail, he just figured out 700 ways of how not to make a light bulb, or something along those lines. I think that’s quite an interesting and relevant approach. Something to always keep in mind.
M: Sometimes we were not doing projects because we thought that they were not planned perfectly enough.
S: But eventually we just started doing it, even if we weren’t as prepared… and they worked out just fine, and that’s also the fun of it! On weddings it’s the same – not everything always goes according to plan, we are improvising all the time, so why not improvise for a creative project, too. Sometimes the outcome is even better than expected, more creative, more unique.
5. Define your ideal client
S: This is another situation where we’ve pulled our hair out. It’s such a pain in the ass. But, it is absolutely necessary! And very much like your style, it is a process. You can’t figure that out in a night. You’ve got to experience people. you’ve got to explore them and even more importantly yourselves !
M: I think what made a difference to me was understanding that not every bride was our client. The first year I was pushing Facebook ads, targeting women who were engaged. Which is rubbish, because not every engaged woman is going to be our client. I wanted to work with women that had the same understanding of beauty that I have, that would pick a dress I’d pick if I was a bride so our ideal client / bride is basically me with a ring on her finger (smiles)
Realizing that was a huge milestone for us, we immediately stopped all the Facebook ads, we even started a completely new Facebook page, because most of the people who had liked us by then, were not our target audience.
So how long did it take you to figure out who was your ideal client?
M: I’d say it’s still ongoing… but we have a much better idea now of who this person or couple is, that we wanted to work with.
S: Exactly! it’s still an ongoing process, and the more we develop and the more we explore our own creative direction, the more we start understanding the little things about our ideal client. Because you know, you can take the general side of it, like: “It’s a woman, who is earning an X amount, has this type of husband, and is shopping in certain places.. “ but that’s way too general.
With time you start realizing stuff like – “hey, we really love outdoors stuff, we really like shooting outside”, then you need to think what are these people doing, where are they coming from, what are their favorite brands? How do they spend their free time… Figure out the little things, and it will get clearer. We like to say these people are a better version of ourselves (smiles)
M: Finding your ideal client is a whole topic. This would be something I would tell to anybody who is just starting out. With any business really, there is always a specific market that you want to target in order to get the happy clients.
Nowadays we have a much more narrow target audience on Facebook, in hours and hours of analysis, we figured out how to build target audiences on FB that want to actually see our ads and buy our services.
6. Content over Editing
S: What we also realized is that our clients don’t look at the photographs from the photographer’s perspective. They’re paying attention to the content. It’s something we overlooked so easily. You know, maybe the picture wasn’t sharp, maybe it was a bit blurry. But a bride doesn’t necessarily see that.
M: We were fighting about skin tones, it was like nightmares “no this is too orange, no this is too beige”, it was really frustrating. But when a future bride looks at a picture, she doesn’t say “ooh, look this is a nice skin tone”. She’s looking at a picture and thinking “can I see myself in this dress, in this location? ” They see the whole package. They don’t think too much about those little editing details.
S: Focus on creating the content. That’s something that we got stuck on for a while… instead of spending hundreds of dollars on Presets (smiles)
7. Have & Maintain a Business Plan
M: After our first year in business, we found it was very difficult to grow our business and achieve our goals when they were not even defined in detail. We knew we wanted to own a healthy and sustainable business and work with our ideal client. But HOW to get there? A detailed business plan helped us immensely to push our business and photography in the right direction. With each goal we defined, we also listed the actions that needed to be done to achieve it. Sitting down and taking the time to practice this process has helped us grow faster, improved our photography and got us financially stable with our business. This in exchange has boosted our confidence and helped us believe in ourselves – which is absolutely crucial!
S: We now have a tool, yearly Business Targets which we work on and we update throughout the year. We define targets we want to achieve in finance, photography, marketing, social media, … and how to achieve them, i.e. a target would be to reach a certain number of followers on IG, or to create FB ads with a specific CPI, or to be ranked on page one for specific google search keywords that we defined for us.
M: And based on all that, we break it down to weekly To do Lists that we keep track of every day, discuss where we face difficulties or celebrate when something worked well (smiles)
It was a game changer for us and it really works.
8. Fame vs. Success
M: After we received the first likes on our work from people that were not our parents or friends, we were super excited and for a while we put so much time and effort just into getting recognized even more. We thought, oh let’s try achieve many likes on Facebook and Instagram and we’ll be successful.
S: But running a successful business doesn’t work like that. Now we are measuring our success on different things. Now, success for us is a calendar full of bookings with couples that we believe are a good fit. Sure, we are still happy when we get recognition for our work, but it’s not the center of the universe anymore. And it should never have been.
9. Live Your Life
S: The last one, and a very important one is “Living your life”. Trying not to forget that you are human beings. It’s very easy to forget, and focus 150%, day and night on your business. And while it sounds like a good idea, what you forget is that you can burn yourself out, and also hurt friendships & relationships.
Give yourself play time, to go and do things that maybe have nothing to do with photography. Because no matter how passionate you are about it, business sometimes can kill the passion, if you overdo it. So having that time to go an live is crucial!
I mean, for us as a couple, it’s a nice thing to be able to go out somewhere and not talk about work, but just be with each other. It makes us happier, which in turn makes us more creative, and better business people. So I think that it’s absolutely necessary to take some time off.
It could be 1 day a week or even a couple of hours a week, but go and do something completely unrelated to business.
Share 3 things from your bucket list.
S: Going to the Arctic.
Both: Owning a camper van and travel all over Europe with our dog.
Both: Building our dream home somewhere by water and in nature.
And your favorite quote?
S: “You cannot fail. You can only learn, or succeed”
That helped me through a lot of stuff.
M: “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone”
Hope you enjoyed this list, mentally nodding your head in approval while reading. Or perhaps smiling while remembering the moment these realizations came to you. It’s all a process, and we all learn to be better, more efficient and more happy along the way. Have Melli & Shayne miss out on any crucial points? Perhaps. It’s a very personal experience for each of us. So if you have any other points to add to this list, please do in the comments below. We’d love to hear about your experience and learn from you!